There seems to be a lot of talk about the current state of country music and the apparent departure from “traditional/hardcore” sounds. Most all music genres evolve over time and country music is no different. However, more recently there has been more deviation of the standard country chord selection and progression than I can recall. In this article, I provide my thoughts on this subject and discuss how one country music superstar is trying to counteract this trend.
History has shown country music recording artists often struggle to get a record deal often mortgaging everything. This puts them in a compromising position from the very beginning essentially requiring them to follow record label executive and “mainstream” country music’s direction in order to succeed. When a new sound creates a few radio hits, most all executives to try copy and release this sound for radio play. This is the reason there are several songs with similar sounds on the radio at any given time. While I realize the business aspect of this, it is not being true to the genre. While it may lead to short term financial gains, the long term effect will lead to a loss of fans.
If an artist is lucky enough to sell over thirty million albums and have thirty number one songs to his credit (such as Ronnie Dunn), he may rightfully feel he knows the correct formula for commercial success. However, commercial success is directly correlated to album sales and radio play. This requires a team effort including label executives, producers, public relation specialists, artist management and the artist and songwriter. The old saying “it all starts with a song” is absolutely true. However, it seems commercial success is more about the politics involved. I recently read a discussion from a former Nashville record label executive who likened getting radio play to political lobbying. He noted it is often who you know and what influence you have rather than the actual song itself. This is such a shame. Anytime a song takes a backseat to business, there is the chance of mediocrity.
Perhaps if there were more fan choice and/or survey influenced programs helping develop radio playlists, the lobbying part would play less of a role.
There has been a recent trend of successful country artists forming their own record labels and taking more control over their product (Ronnie Dunn, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, etc). This should resonate loudly with fans and music executives alike. Clearly several artists are unhappy with the current situation in Nashville. I feel it is important for artists to have creative control to help prevent discontent and possibly prolong their carreer. The unfortunate part is it seems to take significant commercial success and personal wealth for this to become a reality. I am hopful an expansion of artist-led record labels will expand this control.
Ronnie Dunn is clearly a country music superstar and a great example of the previous discussion. In 2010, he left Brooks and Dunn and revived his solo carreer. This was after twenty years of being the anchor of the most prolific duo in country music history. His influence is undeniable. In 2011, he released his eponymous album which fulfilled his obligation with Arista Nashville. While he has stated he had more creative control over this album than Brooks and Dunn albums, there were still significant limitations.
Thankfully Mr. Dunn did not ride off into the Santa Fe sunset (as his “COWBOY” tattoo on his arm might indicate). He will turn 61 on June 1 and his songwriting and singing are as good as ever. The lack of his continued influence would leave a huge hole in country music for many of us.
His solution for more control? Form Little Will-E Records at his own expense. His first release under his own label was “Peace, Love and Country Music”. This was released in April 2014 to critical acclaim. The album includes a great mix of pure country (listen to “They Still Play Country Music in Texas”; “Grown Damn Man”) as well as southern rock influenced riffs which stir emotion. In fact, each song is delivered with conviction and feeling making this album a masterpiece. I have read others say Mr. Dunn talks about only singing true, hard-core, traditional country music and his addition of southern rock influenced sounds do not comply. I think they have misunderstood his point. I interpret his comments to refer to individual artists being allowed to make music that mean something to them and in their own way. Starting with basic country music chord progression and song structure and allowing each artist to expand and alter as he feels is to me, hard-core, traditional country music. Simply recording a song for commercial success without feeling is not consistent with this definition.
I think a song deserves considerstion for radio play based on the song itself and not political lobbying or simply because it sounds like a previous hit. Unless we as fans can come together and push for this, I feel the state of country music is questionable at best.
God bless true artists like Ronnie Dunn.